As the final minutes of his college career counted down, the emotions of the moment started to hit Christian Wilkins.
Clemson’s All-American defensive tackle began to cry, “an ugly cry” as he described it. Regardless, the finality of the moment hit him, especially when his head coach, Dabo Swinney, consoled him and told him how much he appreciated all he did for the program and Clemson University.
“I was overwhelmed with emotions,” Wilkins said. “I did not know how to handle it. This is really just special. As a senior and to get to walk off as the best ever and the first 15-0 team, you can’t script it any better.”
Clemson ended its perfect season with a 44-16 victory over Alabama, a game where the Tigers completely dominated the Crimson Tide to win their second national championship in three years.
“I was looking at everybody. This is really it,” Wilkins recalled of the final moments at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. “It has been a fun ride. Like I said, you can’t really script it. It was special and I’m glad we were able to do it.”
Wilkins ends his career as part of a senior class that went 55-4 at Clemson. They are tied with Alabama’s seniors as the winningest class in the history of college football. They’re also the first seniors in the ACC to win two national championships, while also winning four outright ACC Championships in a row.
“The things that we have been through as a team and all the adversity that we faced, and there a lot of things that go on day in and day out not everyone knows about,” Wilkins said. “We feel like this group of seniors did a great job leaving Clemson better than we found it. We have taken this program to new heights and I feel like Clemson is a place where you have a lot of pressure on you, but a lot of good pressure.
“There were a lot of great guys that came before us that came to Clemson and touched it, but they did not get all of these opportunities. Now all of those guys can take this and know that they have two national championships as well. This is not about all of us. It is about the guys that came before us and allowed us to get to this point, so it is really just special.”
It’s also special because Wilkins was able to come back for his final year and share a national championship with his brothers on the defensive line. Like defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, Wilkins decided to come back to Clemson for one final season and chase the dream of being the best team ever with them.
“This was not the biggest thing and it was not the only reason I wanted to come back,” Wilkins said. “This was special because this was a really unique opportunity for us to get to this game, and to win it. To see it all come to fruition is really great.
“We made a decision that no one was going to outwork us. Early on, we were scrounging, and we were putting the work in and we were blessed to get the results that we got.”
Wilkins finishes his career as one of Clemson’s greatest defensive tackles of all time.
This year, he became just the fifth Clemson player in history to be named a unanimous All-American. He won the Campbell Trophy given to the nation’s best player on the field and in the classroom. He finished the season with 50 tackles, including 15 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and six sacks.
The graduate student, who now has his master’s degree, tallied 243 tackles in his four-year career, including 41 tackles for loss and 16 sacks.
Wilkins also scored three touchdowns in his career, running for two this past season and catching one during the Tigers’ 2016 run towards a national championship.
But as great as all of those individual accomplishments are, the thing that Wilkins likes best is that when he walked off the field as a Clemson Tiger for the last time on Jan. 7, he walked off as a member of arguably the greatest football team of all time.
“We are the first team to go 15-0,” he said. “I will leave that up to you. I do not want to disrespect any of the other great teams that came before us. But when you are the first to do something, I feel like you earn a little respect and a little attention.
“But people will probably not want to believe it because we are just a bunch of funky ol’ Tigers. We are just some funky raggedy ol’ Tigers from Clemson. This isn’t supposed to be us. We are not supposed to be here. These moments and things like this are supposed to be for teams like Alabama, Ohio State and all of those other great programs. I am glad the Tigers were the first ones to be able to get it done.”